Clayton tannery

Perhaps he was good at technology because he was always interested in it. He will likely be most remembered because he published extensive detailed printed and audio diaries of his career all produced through his careful collected advanced recording equipment. He recorded everything because he did not trust journalists to report him accurately.

In these diaries he records a visit to Clayton Tannery, Chesterfield, in Northern England (Benn was a Member of Parliament for the area), which he made in March 1992. Astonishingly he immediately jumps into the stereotypes that aggravate all tanners about the way our industry is characterised. “The buildings were ancient. There was ‘No Smoking’ because they would catch fire if anyone lit a match in there. There were deep pits of chemicals into which the hide was put, and then the flesh and the hair was rubbed off. The smell was pretty unpleasant…….It really was quite incredible.”

Today Claytons, founded in 1830, is still making leather via traditional pit tanned methods, and one must question how well the management (two generations back from the current management) presented some of the things they were doing. Nevertheless someone with a technical mind like Tony Benn should have been better able to see the added value and employment that technology ancient and modern offers to modern society. Despite all the huge declines in leather manufacturing in Europe this sector has managed to survive because it makes truly valid products in which the consumer still finds true value.

Vegetable tanning is very much alive

Vegetable tanning is what is called a “robust technology”, a dominant design; indeed it almost defines the term. It has been around for many thousands of years and after having slipped in importance in the last hundred years, as sole leather and saddlery lost their importance in the world, it is now coming back and regaining its true status. As a robust technology vegetable tanning has truly survived, but it has always evolved. One of its best iterations was Dongola, produced in Gloversville in 1879 by James Kent, which mixed gambier with alum and added a fatliquoring process replacing egg yoke. James Kent died just a few years later but in those years his success with Dongola, supported by great marketing from his Booth group backers had made him a very rich man. Even back in 1992 Claytons were doing creative things with their processing and recent introduction of a shell Cordovan just proves the point. From Tuscany in the south of Europe to Belgium and into northern Europe vegetable tanners are bringing innovative ideas to meet new consumer needs with updated traditional leathers.

We do not have a huge list of great leathers like this, which have made a lasting impact but a more recent one was Floater which was trademarked by Prime Tanning in November 1986 with No.1415894. Every side leather tannery offers its customers some form of seasonal ranges, working with its suppliers and other experts to get colour and textures right but in among these the clever tanner is looking for something which better fits his raw material with the evolving customer needs. Floater did just that by making a comfortable leather with character and great cutting value yet offering a good yield to the tanner and a relatively benign demand on grades. For this reason almost every side leather tannery in the world now offers Floater in some form or the other, often even stealing the name.

These developments are not usually a 100% new invention but normally a number of five or six known technologies along with one really clever innovation or concept which brings them together to create something special. That is the essence of a dominant design as it keeps going with incremental and tangential developments.

While I still celebrate Tony Benn for getting Concorde going and for his great rhetoric and commitment to politics, sadly he did not grasp the importance of robust technology. Concorde was not a robust technology but a lean one, and once its life finished that was the end. The dominant design in aviation in the second half of the 20th century was the 747, the Jumbo, which provided both a transformation in global air transport and a platform that continues to evolve.

In leather we are still searching for a new dominant design to take us beyond vegetable and chrome tanning. Meanwhile we continue to build on the strengths of these two well-founded technologies and need to be as creative as ever to stay ahead of the competition. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood